The United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) was formed in 1996 by the U.S. Hockey Federation as a way to identify top players under the age of 18 and centralize their training in order to develop talent more effectively. The program going towards its 25th year has produced its fair share of NHL stars, and this article is going to take a look at the top-five of these.
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With ten U-18 gold medals in 26 years, the program is among the best at developing players, and once you see the list below, you will realize how powerful this program is in the hockey world. It’s incredibly hard to stop this list at just five players as the amount of NHL talent that has come out of this program is next-level.
1. Patrick Kane
Patrick Kane has been one of the NHL’s top offensive players continuously for the last decade. With three Stanley Cups, a 2016 Hart Trophy, a 2008 Calder Trophy, a 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy, a 2016 Ted Lindsey Award, and 2016 Art Ross trophy, Kane is arguably the most accomplished American player ever. I apologize for making you read that list of awards, but it shows in how many different areas/moments Kane has been at the top of the league.
Kane played two years with the USNTDP choosing not to go to the London Knights who drafted him in the 2004 OHL Draft. However, in 2006, he joined the OHL once he broke Phil Kessel’s U.S. point record. After this success and a strong rookie year for the London Knights, he was picked first overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, and the rest is history.
Kane is the youngest American player to reach 1,000 career regular-season points and was named one of the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players when he was only 28. Still, at only 31 years of age, Kane has a lot of time ahead of him in the NHL, but he still sits decisively at the top of this list.
2. Phil Kessel
The second player on this list is the one Kane beat in points but is no slouch himself as a player. A former record holder himself at both the U-17 and U-18 level for points, Kessel has always known how to put the puck in the back of the net.
In the NHL, Kessel has seen lots of success, but has often been overshadowed by other superstars he has played with. What you can’t take away from Phil are his two Stanley Cups and his five 30-goal seasons. During those two Cup runs, he played a significant role on a star-studded Penguins team as well. Holding his own among the best of the best, Kessel deserves to be at No. 2 on this list.
At just 32 years of age, Kessel has the opportunity to improve immensely on these totals and cement his status as one of the great American hockey players of all-time.
3. Auston Matthews
By the time all is said and done, Auston Matthews could very well be at the top of this list, but as of right now I’m putting him at No. 3. An elite offensive talent with an underrated two-way game, and a developing leader, it’s hard to understate Matthews’ value to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A 40-goal scorer as a rookie, it’s hard to imagine Matthews as being anything else but among the elite. He also broke Kane’s USNTDP record by over 15 points and decided to finish his draft-eligible campaign in Switzerland.
The reason he is behind Kessel is simple, Stanley Cups. If the Toronto Maple Leafs find sustained success, then Matthews will be talked about in the same gasp as the two-players mentioned above, but even without the Cups, his performances are good enough for third overall on this list.
4. Jack Eichel
A teammate of Matthews with the program, Jack Eichel, under better circumstances, could be a lot higher on this list. With what is a struggling organization in Buffalo, Eichel has never failed to put up strong numbers and has consistently been at the top of the league in individual performances.
During his (brief) time with the USNTDP he was the youngest player on the roster that won the 2014 U-18 gold medal. After his success with the program, he went to Boston University where he played his final year before his draft class.
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Between injury issues and lack of secondary scoring options, Eichel has not had the opportunity to star at the level of the other individuals on this list, but not for lack of trying. No. 4 on a list with prospective Hall-of-Fame level talent is never shabby, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for the guy with all the hard times he’s gone through with the Sabres.
5. James van Riemsdyk
The second player to be selected in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft behind Kane was another American in James van Riemsdyk. Although he is not up there on any of the overall record points for the USNTDP, van Riemsdyk was a solid player in the program.
In a career marred by injuries, JVR has still managed to find sustained success in the league. Never failing to find 20 goals when he plays a whole 82-game season, JVR has been a consistent offensive-force since he entered the league. With a career-high 62 points in 2016-17, JVR is one of the best secondary scoring options in the league.
Potentially overrated during his time with the Leafs, but underrated for his time with the Flyers, JVR has been a consistently good player. Many others could have made No. 5 on this list, but due to continued success, and withstanding injuries, he makes the grade.
Honourable mentions: Matthew Tkachuk, Kevin Shattenkirk, Clayton Keller
Who’s Got Next?
One could reasonably question why I have failed to mention either of the Hughes brothers who have seen early success in the NHL and dominated the record-book for the U-18 program as well. Although I do not doubt that eventually both of them will be on this list, as of this writing, neither of them have won any major NHL awards, and neither has had sustained success at the highest level.
With that being said, there are many players not on this list who have seen sustained success at this level but have not made this list. Does Clayton Keller deserve a spot on this list? How about Kevin Shattenkirk, or either of the Johnson brothers? Let me know in the comments below who you would’ve put on this list, and I’d be happy to be part of the discussion.